“Uh…” The sound emitted by the President of the European Commission on Tuesday testifies to her disbelief. A few minutes earlier, she entered the office of the Turkish Head of State with Charles Michel. She represents the Commission, he the Council. The duo embody, in equal parts, the European Union. But facing the three protagonists are only two armchairs. The men occupy them quickly, leaving the woman standing. A fraction of a second later, here she is on a side sofa. In Ankara, Ursula von der Leyen could only sit on an ottoman.
The “sofagate” scandalizes first of all because of the symbolic violence that conceals this ostentatious discrimination. Then it occurs in a country that has just withdrawn from the – misnamed – Istanbul Convention against Violence Against Women. To contemplate Ursula von der Leyen thus demeaned is all the more embarrassing because it occurs in an office where still stands the portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who, in 1934, had granted the vote to the Turks.
All this would be a bad spirit, retort those who want to put out the fire. The protocol rank of the President of the Commission would be lower than that of the President of the Council. The argument does not hold true in practice, as evidenced by the archive images where Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker all have enough to sit with dignity. The services of the Turkish presidency could not ignore this.
“Protocol is politics,” recalls former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger of the scene that occurred on Tuesday. The gestures that one makes or not during official visits betray the intentions. Such Vladimir Poutine once bringing his dog towards Angela Merkel, whom he knew however terrified by these animals. Like the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell, humiliated in Moscow in February when Russia announced the expulsion of three European diplomats while holding a press conference with Sergey Lavrov.
After years of heritage, these same Europeans knew that the meeting with the Turkish president would be delicate. They chose to go to his land. By playing by its rules and forgetting once again to stand together, they lost this round.